Building Virtual Classrooms
Community colleges looking to grow eLearning programs have a range of choices, from the DIY approach to outsourcing.
- By Barbara Ravage
TWO RURAL COMMUNITY COLLEGES are considering how to build out their eLearning environments. For one, the primary issue is a crumbling infrastructure that cannot even support current instructional demands, let alone allow for growth and innovation. For the other, it’s a matter of delivering richer online offerings to gain a competitive edge. With enrollments hovering around 3,000, each has a main campus with several satellite locations. Each offers individual online courses as well as degree and certificate programs on campus, online, or in hybrid or web-enhanced forms.
OUTSOURCING enabled State Fair Community College to expand its online course offerings and degree programs, and to increase enrollment.
That’s where the similarities end. The two schools in question—Cleveland State Community College in southeast Tennessee and State Fair Community College in west-central Missouri—looked at their resources, their options, and their goals and chose to take radically different routes toward the same end. The decisions they made—and how they made them—may serve as models for other community colleges seeking to expand online offerings in ways that meet their particular educational and business requirements.
Aging Infrastructure as a Force for Change
When he arrived at Cleveland State Community College as director for instructional technology in July 2006, Ron Paige found an infrastructure on the edge of collapse and a distance learning faculty tied to what he considered an obsolete teaching mode. The ITV videoconferencing equipment was so out of date that it was no longer supported, despite a hefty annual maintenance contract.
CLEVELAND STATE COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Upgrade/replace obsolete equipment with new eLearning system for synchronous and asynchronous online instruction
LMS: Desire2Learn (www.desire2learn.com)
Collaboration environment: Elluminate Learning Suite (www.elluminate.com)
Student support: Smarthinking for online academic tutoring (www.smarthinking.com);
Elluminate for virtual office hours, student support services
Tech support: Atomic Learning technology tutorials (www.atomiclearning.com)
The dedicated phone lines carrying the video signal were maxed out, so lectures could be seen at only three off-site locations—the college’s two satellite campuses and just one of 15 dual-enrollment high schools.
“My initial technical challenge was to integrate the existing ITV system into a much more studentengaging learning environment, using state-ofthe- art, relatively inexpensive, unlimited-access digital technology,” Paige states. What’s more, he had to make the transition “in a seamless manner that did not create additional load on faculty or disrupt the distance learning curricula or schedules already in place.”
Beyond an aging physical infrastructure, Paige also faced what might be called an outdated pedagogical foundation. The faculty and administration wanted new equipment, but they also wanted to preserve the ITV experience, which Paige calls “educational voyeurism.”
“There was an entrenched perception that contemporary technology, especially broadband internet access and modern computers, was not universally available to our students,” Paige recalls. After conducting a survey that showed “contemporary technologies were available to and used by 99 percent of our students,” Paige argued that “with the digitization of virtual education, we could go to the internet and find something that would cost much less yet give students throughout our service area full access and a better educational experience.”
For a while, a compromise was struck, with both ITV remaining in place and a few early adopters using WebCT. “I knew it wasn’t going to be what the students wanted, but we had to start where the instructors were—and let them find out for themselves that it wasn’t what they wanted either.”
In the summer of 2007, Paige’s forward-thinking mission was helped when the state board of regents adopted Desire2Learn (D2L), requiring all member schools to submit an implementation plan that included a training program for all instructors who intended to use the new learning management system (LMS). Online@CSCC came into being as Cleveland State’s branded D2L learning environment. Still, most faculty clung to the “talking head and whiteboard” ITV model. The mandated training was left on the shelf, thanks to what Paige characterizes as procrastination typical in academic institutions.
Then, on the eve of the 2009 summer session, a major equipment breakdown forced the issue: ITV was out of the picture. Ready or not, the LMS was the only option. “Fortunately, this happened during the shorter summer session, when we had a smaller group of people” on which to test a larger D2L rollout, Paige recalls. That launch, however, was beset by its own set of difficulties, prompting Paige to describe the time as both a “disaster” and “an opportunity” to solve some major problems before the fall semester.
The problems fell into two distinct categories: technical and training. The technical turned out to be a big glitch with a quick fix. “We knew we were going to need more bandwidth, so we doubled it all around and in some cases at our main campus, tripled it. We just assumed that our service provider had done what we asked because they started billing us accordingly,” Paige explains. “When we found we were having significant delivery problems, we asked the ISP for a complete overview of what was happening and they discovered that they never had increased our bandwidth after all.”
The larger problem was lack of training. There was no time to train the instructors for the summer session, and they were unprepared to use equipment and technology with steep learning curves. “We had instructors who were used to an existing system and thought the new system was the same thing except on the internet,” says Paige. “You can’t just walk into a Desire2Learn setting and teach the same way. You have to have content that the students can be engaged with. If you aren’t prepared, you can’t just wing it.”
In response to the summer debacle, Paige developed his own “train-the-trainer” system to get faculty up to speed. Through a six-module, 48-hour course, a volunteer from each academic department is trained on D2L as well as a grab bag of other technology tools. Trainers get rewards such as release time and funding to attend ed tech conferences. Each trainer then becomes the department’s go-to person. “They’re able to handle all the smaller problems.
The more complex ones come to me,” he says. From day one, Paige’s task required both tech savvy and powers of persuasion. Getting people to buy into his vision was as much a part of the job as researching and implementing technological change. Calling the transformation an evolutionary process, he says, “There is a growing awareness that these technologies can be used to engage students, and a growing number of instructors are pushing the envelope as they experiment with the technology. We are heading away from educational voyeurism toward my original vision of individualized asynchronous and synchronous delivery.”
The Outsourcing Option
For State Fair Community College President Marsha Drennon, expanding online instruction was a strategy for gaining a competitive edge. “Anticipating growth for online learning and understanding that the competition for students would be intense, I knew it was really important to have state-ofthe- art campus technologies that would allow us to expand our online learning environment.”
SFCC vies for students with 19 other community colleges in Missouri. “In a rural area, population growth is limited,” Drennon says. “Our approach was to find new markets and special learning niches that we could fill using online delivery.” The problem, in her view, is that campus technology is not a “core competency for community colleges, especially in rural areas.” So, rather than put resources toward growing that internal capacity, SFCC decided to outsource the entire IT operation to SunGard Higher Education.
With the help of Robert Paulson, who came on board as vice president of technology services for SunGard at SFCC the administration crafted a strategic plan to fully align IT with the college’s overall objectives. As part of its suite of services, SunGard set up and staffed a new Department of Educational Technology Services. SFCC Online was part of the comprehensive tech overhaul spearheaded by SunGard.
State Fair Community College
Expand online course offerings and degree programs to increase enrollment
Outsourced IT services: SunGard Higher Education (www.sungardhe.com)
LMS: Angel Learning (now owned by Blackboard; www.blackboard.com)
Instructional design: Quality Matters (www.qualitymatters.org)
Student support: Elluminate Learning Suite for orientation and academic advising
(www.elluminate.com); integrated with Wacom tablets for tutoring and remediation (www.wacom.com)
Tech support: SunGard 24/7 help desk
Paulson and Eric Fudge, the Sun- Gard embed who serves as SFCC’s director of instructional technology, are an integral part of the college community, Drennon emphasizes. “They’re members of my team. They see themselves as SFCC employees and part of our family, which has made this partnership work so well.”
That partnership is part of an ongoing process that began in November 2003, and continues as online instructional design is refined and standardized and new courses are added. As of fall 2009, SFCC offers full Associate of Arts and Applied Science degree programs online.
Among the main advantages of outsourcing, Fudge says, “is that we can get answers faster because of the resources backing us. If we have questions, we can check with colleagues at other schools or within SunGard. Most likely, someone else has already worked through [a similar problem], so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” Another advantage comes into play when choosing applications and equipment. Although purchasing decisions are SFCC’s alone, SunGard offers guidance and assistance in negotiations. “We have more clout with vendors so we can usually get better deals than State Fair would be able to do,” notes Fudge.
On the recommendation of a SunGard instructional analyst, SFCC Online adopted the Quality Matters master course rubric in 2007. SunGard developed a template based on that rubric, to provide structure and ensure that each online course has all the components required to meet the Quality Matters standard. Instructors import the template and add their own course content, with guidance from Fudge if needed. Using the template means each instructor doesn’t have to design his or her course from scratch. “It saves time and effort, and helps maintain the integrity of the curriculum by avoiding inconsistency from course to course,” says Fudge, adding that it’s particularly helpful as the school hires more adjuncts to fill rapidly increasing faculty slots.
As more students opted for online courses, it became clear that beyond e-mail and telephone contact, there was a lack of tools to help them with academic as well as technical issues. To remedy that, Fudge says, “We RFPed and selected Elluminate to provide a virtual meeting space for advising, orientation, tutoring, and remedial work.” The oncampus tutoring department uses Elluminate’s web conferencing capabilities, integrated with Wacom tablets, to deliver robust assistance to distance learners. Tech support was beefed up with a 24/7 live help desk, a SunGard service option. When SFCC adopted the Angel Learning LMS in January 2009, students were offered a four-module online self-study course on using it. According to Fudge, “Instructors really like it because students are coming in better prepared, and they don’t have to spend the first week teaching how to use Angel. Some instructors are making it a course prerequisite.”
With fall 2009 collegewide enrollment hours up 28 percent and a 40 percent increase in online enrollment over the 2008 fall semester, there’s no doubt in Drennon’s mind that outsourcing was the right decision for SFCC. “It is very hard to stay on top of what you need in terms of classroom technologies, training for the faculty, hardware, software, licensure, all of those kinds of things. Bringing in folks with outside expertise has had a very positive impact on how we move the institution forward with online learning.”